Bring the Arctic close to the young

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 5, 2013

SINCE its entry to the Arctic Council as a permanent observer in May, Singapore officials have been busy stamping the Republic's name on Arctic projects.

Indeed, Singapore's efforts on the Arctic are gaining recognition. But this needs to be supplemented by efforts within Singapore to get the young interested in an issue that has a long-term impact on the nation's survival.

Singapore, located about 137km above the Equator, is far removed from the ice-capped North. But the island's future is intertwined with that of the Arctic, a region that is important to the functioning of Earth systems such as oceans and the climate.

Melting polar ice has opened up the prospect of greater access to the Arctic's riches, including 30 per cent of the world's undiscovered natural gas and 20 per cent of the world's oil reserves. The region is also rich in minerals, fish and fresh water.

There are international concerns that there is a ticking Arctic time bomb that will go off if environmental and human development issues are not addressed while resources are exploited.

If sea levels continue to rise because of climate change, Singapore could be submerged.

Mindful of the need to tackle this and other long-term challenges, Singapore applied for permanent observer status in the Arctic Council in 2011 and got in this year.

Set up in 1996, the council promotes cooperation and interaction on issues such as sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic.

Singapore officials attended their first council meeting as permanent observers at a three-day meeting of senior Arctic officials that ended on Oct 24 in Whitehorse, Canada.

A week before that, a Singapore team was at the inaugural Arctic Circle Forum held in Reykjavik, Iceland, attended by over 1,000 participants from more than 40 countries.

Set up this year, this body facilitates global discussion on Arctic matters.

The Republic's Arctic strategy was clearly spelt out at both meetings: Singapore will give, not take from the Arctic.

Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs Sam Tan said Singapore intends to share its experience on how the Arctic environment can be protected.

Singapore's use of energy-efficient methods has been recognised by the International Energy Agency. It rated Singapore as one of the countries that has the lowest carbon dioxide emissions internationally.

The Republic also has knowledge in regulating safe and responsible shipping.

It will also help preserve the knowledge and heritage of the Arctic indigenous communities. The Arctic region has 40 distinct indigenous groups.

Singapore is also keen to provide assistance in what is being termed as "polar medicine". The Straits Times understands that one area of work is to treat and cure tuberculosis. This health problem has resurfaced among some of the Arctic people in Canada due to poor diet and the presence of a drug-resistant strain of the bug.

A few Singaporeans have begun venturing into the region. Among them are Don and Kar Yee Thornton, who have created iPad apps to teach indigenous languages to Arctic children.

Several of the indigenous Arctic communities are losing their language, and along with it, their culture and traditions.

But what about Singapore students and their exposure to issues in the Arctic? The closest they can come to wintry life is watching Inuka, a polar bear born in sunny Singapore, swim in its cold cave display at the Singapore Zoo.

More should be done.

In the glacial town of Longyearbyen in Norway, the dead are moved out to other parts of the country as the corpses do not decompose. The cold preserves them. Scientists have found, in the tissue of a man who died in the area, traces of the influenza virus which killed him and others in an epidemic in 1917.

This is the science stuff that fascinates the young. Throw in tales of pirates, skulls and dangerous sea adventures and how these are linked to Singapore's founding, and lessons become relevant.

The founding of Singapore in 1819 by the East India Company, for example, is tied to the Arctic.

In the 17th century, the English were determined to contain the power of their country's main rivals, the Dutch, and lay their hands on spices found in the Spice Islands in Indonesia.

The maiden voyage to the Spice Islands for the English began not across the Atlantic, Indian or Pacific oceans, but in the ice-bound Arctic.

After the English failed disastrously in the Arctic, they were forced to find new sea routes to reach the spices and that search led to the founding of Singapore.

Students can learn much about the Arctic from their comfort zones in Singapore. Every year, the island plays host to a large number of Arctic birds that fly southwards in winter.

These birds can be seen at the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserves and the Southern Islands.

By keeping a safe space for these birds, Singapore is doing its part in preserving the world's eco-system.

These birds are food for the coastal Arctic people, along with caribou and fish. The excrement from these birds serves to fertilise the thin layer of soil in the Arctic. The plants that eventually grow are eaten by Arctic animals.

The birds also eat insects that harm people and, if the bird numbers dip, the size of some insect populations will grow "dramatically, with unknown effects on the food web or the health of water bodies", says Mr Tom Barry, executive secretary of Caff, the biodiversity working group of the Arctic Council.

Polar encounters can help the young understand Arctic issues and the impact on their lives.

In turn, they will be able to create solutions and leave a legacy for future generations of Singaporeans who will have to deal with other challenges from the North.